You don’t climb mountains without a team, you don’t climb mountains without being fit, you don’t climb mountains without being prepared and you don’t climb mountains without balancing the risks and rewards. And you never climb a mountain on accident – it has to be intentional
~ Mark Udall
13 years ago, filled with piss and vinegar, running away from a failed marriage, behaving in unseemly ways that contradict my morals and ethics (which are socially, not religiously bound) I arrived at a mountain certain that I would finish a 103.7 mile footrace on it…
Fast forward to May 16th-17th this year, I arrived at the same mountain, with the intention of finishing the 103.7 mile footrace on it. Spoiler alert, I made it just under 70 miles in 24 hours before being pulled from the course…
Yes, I covered fewer miles this year. Yes, I didn’t achieve the intended outcome. Yes, I still don’t have a buckle from Massanutten Mountain 100 Miler. But I still succeeded.
On May 15th at 6:00 AM Amy and I headed to Massanutten Mountain for my return engagement with Virginia Happy Trails Running Club’s (VHTRC) premiere event. This return engagement was a long time in the making and made possible by a generous scholarship from #TrailsROC, the running club I belong to in Rochester. I don’t just mention #TrailsROC because it is my obligation to as a result of the scholarship, it is because this group and its members are indicative of the larger reason why I consider this outing a success.
Amy was coming along because she wanted to crew for me. This alone is a new experience for me, I was nervous because I have never had a crew before, I have always just relied on aid stations and drop bags in the past. This change in behavior was going to be different, I was worried about feeling responsible for my crew, I was worried that Amy was going to take my gruffness the wrong way, I was worried about a change in routine. Some of this was founded and some not. It took some getting used to as I was expecting bottles to be handed to me right as I passed through the first aid station, but waited for them to be brought out of the cooler. Also, I ran right by where Amy had set up shop going into the Elizabeth Furnace aid station because it was before the aid station and I was concerned about getting to the aid station and having my number recorded so I had to walk about 50 yards back to Amy’s set up. And then there was the little dispute about a buff vs. a bandanna. All of that was minor… the actuality of the situation is that I have never had better care and attention through aid stations in my entire ultra career. Amy knows me, she knows when I’m feeling good, and when the wheels are off. She made sure that anything I needed or asked for was at the ready. She got me coffee, chicken broth, socks, shirts, shoes, bandannas, buffs, headlamps, batteries, pepperoni jerky, ginger root, ginger ale, tailwind, trekking poles, mountain dew, turkey sandwiches, pierogis, quesadillas, bacon, water, bag balm, chocolate covered espresso beans, and she made sure that officials knew I was on the course still when they thought everyone had come through……. Just amazing!
3 AM is an early wakeup call, but it happened, I threw on my #trailsROC shirt, my sleeves, my Northface Nearly Naked Long Haul shorts (which elicited some great comments later as I was pulling little bottles out of hidden pockets all over the place at an aid station), 2-Toms chafing solution (which doesn’t work well if you’re wearing cotton underwear… there’s a lesson learned) SmartWool Socks, NB MT110v2 shoes, Ultimate Directions AK Race Vest with bottles, and a buff. I headed down to the start to check in and they were cranking “Get up, Get on Up” James Brown J Hanging out I got to see fellow #trailsROC runner Yoshi and get his picture with me. The scene is surreal, you have a PVC pipe made start/finish line with a clock counting down to 4:00 AM and tons of people just leisurely sitting in seats under a tent. It wasn’t until 3 minutes of 4:00 that anyone got up to get near the start line, and then promptly at 4:00 AM Kevin Sayers says “go” in the most unassuming start for one of the most epic races ever. I have seen the cannon shot and start at Kona, I have seen the Boston and NYC marathon start, I have felt the immense power of the understated simple “go” at the MMT 100 mile footrace, and it is no less spectacular than any of those others.
I don’t want to get into a play by play here, but I just want to mention that the first four miles of this race is a gentle uphill (600ft) of road. A guy I was running with quipped, “This is Bullshit!” which became quite the code for, “Yup, this is what I signed up for, let’s have fun with it.” Heard it while climbing Short Mountain, heard it while climbing Kern’s Mountain, heard it while descending into Elizabeth Furnace (Where I saw fellow #trailsROC runner and now VHTRC runner Angie K.), even said it while not being able to run the ridge at the top of the climb out of Elizabeth furnace. A bunch of us were having fun with this as we went along.
We also had a ton more in common, I wish I could count the number of times I heard people talk about that reason we were out there was to grapple with our demons. Not that I actually believe in demons, but I do have issues in my life and my psyche that I grapple with: alcoholism (in remission for 23 years), chronic depression, crippling self-doubt, and anxiety. These come out at the worst times, dealing with work, family, bands, household economics, marriage relationship, socially, politically, etc. One of the things about an ultra of this magnitude is that it is a tangible experience that reveals how wrong I am on so many counts when these “demons” rent space in my head. Part of the reason for this is that they show up during the event, and that happens usually at about 4.5 miles in a stretch of 9 miles without an aid station. What am I going to do? Sit down in the middle of the trail and cry/die because no one is going to lift me out? No, I put one foot in front of the other until I reach the next aid station. Usually around 6 or 7 miles in that stretch I realize that I continued to move forward even when I thought I couldn’t, and realize that my worry, self-doubt demon was just a false thought.
While I had the intention of going the distance, I also realistically knew that it might not happen. I told Ron Herkeens Jr. before the race that the only way to get my off of the course was to pull me off, even if it meant crawling. Mile 54, Habron Gap Aid Station, I was greeted by a volunteer who asked how I was doing, and if I was okay (must have looked dazed after 4 miles of exposed road running from the last aid station (that had guacamole). I just looked at him said, “Yeah, I’m okay, tired is not an injury.” He laughed and said that was the best quote he had heard all day. I had beat the cut-off by about an hour at this point and was told to sit and fuel up for a while because the next climb, Kern’s Mountain, was 2.5 miles and 1300+ feet of climb. So I took some time, changed my shoes, socks and shirt, got a buff, ate some broth, got my trekking poles and set off. Kern’s is really tough, not just because it’s huge but because that four miles of road traversed before climbing it, affords a daunting view of the mountain to stare at. It’s breath taking, not just because of the beauty and anticipation/fear of the climb, but because breath is already gone from traversing 50 miles to this point. But tired is not an injury, and with numerous rest breaks I climbed this thing through the night and traversed this section to Camp Roosevelt with 15 minutes to spare before the cut-off. I didn’t dilly-dally, but I didn’t know that I had another 1000 ft of climb ahead of me, and a steep descent. I missed the next cut off at Gap Creek by 45 minutes, happy, grateful, sad, disappointed, proud, humbled, basically every emotion I own except one, the one that is my truest demon, the one that dogs my every step every day… Anger. There was no anger. THIS IS THE SUCCESS.
It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.
~ Sir Edmund Hillary
What did me in? My feet which were blistered pretty badly and in pain with each step. I was exhausted, there was no gas left in my tank, even though I fueled and hydrated really well. Basically out of the quote at the beginning of this piece, I was not fit. I can blame all sorts of things for this: long cold winter, rolled ankle in October that never completely properly healed, job/family constraints, new medication… but those are just excuses, the real reason is that I didn’t devote enough time to my fitness. I am 20 lbs heavier than I was last year when I ran Cayuga Trails 50. I have not been paying any attention to diet, which I never do. I have rationalized all of my missed workouts away. But as Steve Prefontaine said, “A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” I have myself to blame for not finishing.
But of my success the reality is because I have so many incredible people around me, my life is completely different than it was 13 years ago, I am not finished with this event by any stretch of the imagination, I did not quit.
My demon is not the DNF, nor the rock that goes with it, my demon was/is my anger that does not allow me to see the beauty. The voice that says I’m not fast enough, I’m not good enough, nobody likes me, I’m a second-rate bass player, I’m not an asset to ROCSPOT… this is the voice that obscures the vision that sees: the community of #trailsROC, and Oven Door Runners, the community of my Soul Matters group at First Unitarian, the community of ex-drunks and druggies that infiltrate all areas of my life (work, music, First U, running), the community of my family, my kids, my incredible ultra-babe wife, the community of like-minded scientists and activists in ROCSPOT. This is the voice that obscures the vision of the beauty of the trail, the vista at the top of the climb and during the climb, the ridiculous finds of neat notes buried in old books at Sibley Music Library, the thrill of being a part of helping Rochester out of energy poverty and hopefully economic poverty, the smile in my wife’s face, the achievements of my oldest, youngest and in-between children. For a moment, for 24 hours, this demon was slayed.
And that is the magic of the mountain. It doesn’t care, it is just going to stand in my way and everyone else’s way and knock us down until we find a way up and over in order to see that incredible vista of all the things surrounding us and supporting us.
I’ll be back. Will I finish? I hope so. Does it matter? Yes, but not as much as all of the things I find along the way, and hopefully give back.
I owe so much to this one:
A few more pics, all pics are courtesy of Amy Lopata:
Stats and splits can be found here at Strava.
One Universalist Unitarian description of Grace as found in Soul Matters Material is
“Despite all its theological baggage, at its core the idea of grace simply celebrates a gift. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, it celebrates the giftedness of life. The deepest and most sacred experience of joy comes from encountering a gift you didn’t expect, earn, create or even deserve.”
But a gift from whom, or from where? This is the struggle.
I recently won a sponsorship to run a footrace that costs a substantial amount of money. My wife asked me if this wasn’t an expression of “grace” or being “blessed” (I will save the blessed debate for another time). As I didn’t necessarily expect to win this sponsorship or create it I was meeting at least one if not two of the criteria of the definition above. That said, I noticed that there was an application process, and that I could absolutely not expect to win if I didn’t enter. I ran many races and worked for the sponsorship organizer’s events and I filled out the application which is to say I did what was necessary to earn it and also to create the environment in which it was possible to win, and in hindsight I believe I do deserve it. That it happened at a time that finances are tight could be merely a coincidence or just the fact that finances are always tight in my life.
As I think about all of the instances that I might even consider using the word grace with this definition, upon further examination I find that what really happens is that opportunities emerge from circumstances created within myself as well as outside myself whether it is jobs, gigs, marriages, etc. The sponsorship was created by an entity that was not me, but the taking advantage and doing what was necessary was created by me. I believe that these opportunities are always present. The idea of Grace to me then becomes an exercise of recognizing the multitude of opportunities that surround us and doing what is necessary to take advantage of them. These opportunities of course change through time as we gain more knowledge and skills in life and not everyone is afforded the same opportunities depending on their circumstances.
I also believe that I can be on both sides of this equation. The organization of the sponsorship was the outside catalyst creating the opportunity for me to capitalize on it. I can be that outside catalyst by extending myself to others, by creating opportunities for them. And those opportunities don’t have to be the big ones like creating jobs, sponsorships, or gigs, they can be opportunities to teach skills, or bolster confidence in someone else so they can capitalize on the greater opportunities.
“But what about the times that something just falls I your lap?” You may ask. They say even a broken clock is right twice a day. Can this not be chalked up to coincidence? Also, those things that “fall into our laps” can only be received if we are prepared for them, like a job… if we didn’t have the skills a job falling into our lap wouldn’t mean very much because we couldn’t perform the requisite skills. A loved one who falls into our life can’t be accepted unless we are ready to accept other people in our lives. (ad I not had the experiences of a former marriage, divorce, and opening back up to the world, Amy’s and my relationship would not be what it is today.
Now, none of this is arguing that one should not be grateful (as both the words grace and gratitude have the same etymology gratia). In using another definition of grace, a sense of gratitude allows us to be graceful and thankful when recognizing and taking advantage of the myriad opportunities that constantly surround us. It is this grace that is the impetus for us to extend grace/opportunities to others.
So where does it come from? It comes from us, from our personal evolution of skills, interactions, and knowledge, from our environment and from the circumstances that are presented to us because of the evolving skills, interactions, knowledge that others and the world are constantly going through. So in a sense it is larger than us, but that does not mean it is a god giving it to us, it’s us giving it to us. The key is recognizing it, and knowing it’s here, right now and all of the time… even when it changes.